By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Uri Avnery, a left-wing peace activist who in 1982 became the first prominent Israeli to meet in public with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, died on Monday in a Tel Aviv hospital. He was 94.
The encounter took place during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and war with Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then designated a terrorist group by Israel. Avnery crossed into west Beirut from the Israeli-held east.
“It was the first time Arafat had met with an Israeli, and from this perspective, it could be called a ‘historic meeting’,” Avnery wrote in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper in February.
Secret negotiations a decade later led to interim peace deals with the PLO on establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, a veteran right-winger, said Avnery had been dedicated to building “a strong and free society” in Israel, praising him despite their “fierce differences”.
Avnery fled Nazi Germany with his family as a boy and became a journalist and politician, serving as one of the most vocal and articulate voices of the Israeli left.
His meeting with Arafat, after he travelled to Lebanon at the invitation of the Israeli military as part of a reporting trip, lasted about two hours and “dealt entirely with the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people”, he wrote.
It was broadcast the same night on Israeli television and Avnery was questioned by police but ultimately faced no charges.
Avnery served as a lawmaker from 1965 to 1974 and, from 1979 to 1981, as head of a left-wing party. His death, after a stroke, was headline news in Israel on Monday.
In 2003, during the Palestinian uprising, Avnery travelled with other Israeli activists to Arafat’s headquarters in the occupied West Bank, to act as a human shield against what they said were Israeli plans to assassinate Arafat after a Palestinian suicide bombing.
Avnery wrote that working to prevent such an act was “the most patriotic thing” to do at that time since killing Arafat would have been a disaster for Israel. Arafat died in 2004.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, editing by Andrei Khalip and John Stonestreet)